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Ask Boy Scouts of America to Promote Responsible Pet Ownership

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The Boy Scouts of America's (BSA) Reptile and Amphibian Study Merit Badge requires scouts to “Maintain one or more reptiles or amphibians for at least a month. Record food accepted, eating methods, changes in coloration, shedding of skins, and general habits; or keep the eggs of a reptile from the time of laying until hatching; or keep the eggs of an amphibian from the time of laying until their transformation into tadpoles (frogs) or larvae (salamanders).”

As an employee at a zoological institution, I find this requirement to be irresponsible. Instead of asking the boys to make an informed decision about a pet and care for it over its entire lifetime, the requirement implies that animals can be kept a short time and disposed of. Furthermore, if scouts choose the latter option, once the baby reptile or amphibian hatches, there is no mention of continuing care. Any animals released into the wild will likely be invasive and may damage local ecosystems and spread disease to native species.

While there is an alternative to the requirement (scouts can visit a captive reptile or amphibian once a week for three months and make observations), it is cost-prohibitive for scouts to attend facilities that exemplify excellent care like zoos and aquariums. Potential "free" locations like commercial pet stores may not provide accurate or sound information about the reality of the expense and time commitment required for acceptable animal care.

I am asking all animal-lovers, scientists, serious herpers, environmental educators, and anyone else who is concerned about the BSAs implication that pet ownership is anything less than a life-time commitment to join me in petitioning them to make the following change to the Reptile and Amphibian Merit Badge Requirements:

8. Do ONE of the following:

a. Research common reptiles and amphibians that are kept as pets. Pick one you would like to learn more about and speak to a professional caretaker such as a zookeeper, aquarist or a responsible hobbyist or read a book about the best practices required to ensure a long, healthy life for your chosen species. Find and record the following information:

  • How long does your chosen species typically live, and what is its maximum size?
  • What diet is required, including any supplements, live food, or fresh produce needed for optimum health?
  • What is the minimum size enclosure needed for the animal? What substrate, hides, and other equipment are required for the best care? Will your chosen species need a larger home as it grows over time?
  • What are the ideal temperature and humidity ranges for the animal? What equipment is required to maintain them?
  • What is the initial cost of the equipment and the animal? What are the long-term costs and time commitment of caring for your chosen species over the course of its entire life?

Locate a local veterinarian that can care for your chosen species and ask about common health problems and potential costs involved for medical care. Report what you have learned to your merit badge counselor and explain why or why not you would like to keep the species as a pet and how you plan to ensure it gets the best care if you acquire your chosen species.      

b. Choose a reptile or amphibian that you can observe at a local zoo, aquarium, nature center, or other such exhibit (such as your classroom or school). Study the specimen weekly for a period of three months. At each visit, sketch the specimen in its captive habitat and note any changes in its coloration, shedding of skins, and general habits and behavior. Find out, either from information you locate on your own or by talking to the caretaker, what this species eats and what are its native habitat and home range, preferred climate, average life expectancy, and natural predators. Also identify any human-caused threats to its population and any laws that protect the species and its habitat. After the observation period, share what you have learned with your counselor.

The BSA is generally a very responsible organization, and I feel this change is in keeping with their values of being trustworthy, kind, and conservation-minded. Please join me in urging the BSA to make this common-sense change to an outdated requirement.

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